For the second time, a jury of his peers could not decide collectively whether Quinton Tellis was the one who set 19-year-old Jessica Chambers on fire in a cove on a dark, lonely embankment in December 2014.
The lack of a verdict comes after a trial that has played out to be a serious courtroom drama.
After the first trial seemed to hinge on the idea that first responders heard her say something that sounded like, “Eric,” the prosecution returned with clearer questions.
“What did it sound like?” Assistant District Attorney Jay Hale asked several of the first responders, and they would sound out what they heard.
There were experts who testified to whether Chambers could have spoken at that point. Dr. William Hickerson, the medical director at Firefighters’ Burn Center at Regional One in Memphis, testified on 40 years of experience that it looked like the teen had burned for three to five minutes before she was able to escape the flames.
For that reason, he said, as did speech pathologist Carolyn Higdon, Chambers could not have said anything intelligible with the third-degree burns rendering her face, lips, and tongue like hard leather.
Defense Attorney Darla Palmer pushed Hickerson, saying that medical science was not 100 percent accurate. Couldn’t this be the exception, she asked repeatedly. Hickerson insisted it could not.
Working with the analogy of putting together a puzzle, the prosecution laid out a timeline showing the relationship between Chambers and Tellis — one they said had only lasted a week.
They presented evidence they said filled in the blanks, showing through cellphone data, video footage and witness testimony, including some of Tellis’ own, where the two were throughout the day, until the time Tellis alleges he heard of Chambers’ death.
Agent Scott Meadows with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives presented videos of Tellis’ interviews to the jury, laying out what he said was proof that, as the evidence was presented to Tellis from the day of Chambers’ death, Tellis changed his story multiple times.
Jurors watched as Tellis got emotional, telling the prosecution he didn’t have it in his heart to kill anyone, and they watched his seemingly obvious confusion on which day he met Chambers to give her some money.
They heard from other prosecution witnesses that there was a stranger picked up by Sherry Flowers that night. Flowers couldn’t definitively identify Tellis years later, but she said the mysterious hitchhiker wanted a ride to his Aunt Julia Chambers’ house (no relation to Jessica Chambers), and that because she knew Julia Chambers, she gave him a ride to the intersection of U.S. 51 and Old U.S. 51.
There had just been a fire call to Julia Chambers’ home, and the man the prosecution said was Tellis said she was his aunt and that he wanted to check on her.
Julia Chambers testified that Tellis is her kin, but he never stopped in to see her that night. Nobody did. And on a field trip, the jury saw the spot where the hitchhiker was dropped off — 350 yards from his sister’s home. Both Tellis and his sister admitted he borrowed her truck that night.
When Katherine Rogers from Scales Biological Lab in Brandon testified to the DNA found on Chambers’ keys, however, she said two tests were run. The first one excluded Tellis. As she explained it, an overwhelming amount of female DNA masked the male DNA that was found on the keys by a separate test aimed at extracting male DNA.
In that test, Tellis “could not be ruled out” because one of four DNA profiles on the keys contained markers consistent with the male members of Tellis’ family. But, Palmer said, the test did not show definitively that Tellis’ own DNA is on the keys.
In cross examinations, the defense questioned not only the prosecution’s witnesses, they also questioned their interview tactics. Defense attorney Alton Peterson asked Meadows if tricks were used to get Tellis to change his story. Based on the videos of the interviews, Peterson points out that when Meadows, Rowlett, and MBI agent Tim Douglas showed Tellis the cellphone and video evidence, he changed his story.
When Douglas brought up tto Tellis hat the case could be a death penalty case, Peterson questioned whether that was meant to be a threat.
And unlike last trial, starting with the testimony of Chambers’ mother Lisa Daugherty, the defense attacked allegations that Chambers had been involved with the drug scene.
Tellis’ sister was called to the stand by the defense to try to discredit Mike “Big Mike” Sanford, who had been Tellis’ alibi earlier in the investigation. When authorities spoke to Sanford, he provided proof he was in Nashville at a Tennessee Titans game.
Shaneeka Williams testified Sanford had lied, that he had been with her all day. Champion brought up that there was cellphone information putting him in Nashville, but Williams held firm that they had been together.
Champion then showed her a surveillance photo of Sanford on his way to Nashville, stopping at M&M at 2 p.m. Later on, Travis Carr testified he was with Sanford in Nashville.
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